Packing- check. Breakfast- check. Plenty of time to admire our beautiful hotel– check. We were all set for our last day in Kyoto before taking the Shinkansen to Tokyo.
So off we went to the Mie prefecture to visit…wait for it… the Iga Ninja Museum. Iga is said to be the one of the two homes of the ninja (the other being Shiga) and becoming a ninja is more or less a family business to ensure secrets and techniques are not leaked. And of course, as our guide sensibly pointed out, one can’t really go around teaching others how to kill people in this day and age without being locked up so most of what we know about ninjas and their techniques revolves around self-defense. The road to Iga is simply beautiful. Small Japanese-style homes surrounded by paddy fields, rice stalks swaying in the wind. It looked like a life of peace, but I’m sure many farmers would disagree.
As we approached the ninja village, we stepped into lush greenery which meant that we didn’t feel too hot despite the soaring 36C and of course, we had our trusty fans with us.
We started off by watching the ninja performance which was more humourous than deadly but I can’t tell what I enjoyed more – the performance or the cute Japanese kids all dressed up as ninjas in their blue, red and pink outfits. As part of the performance they call on members of the audience to participate, and one of our group got called on to attempt bursting a balloon with a flute-like device used to shoot poison darts. They succeeded albeit on the 3rd attempt ^^ At the end of the show we all took turns throwing shurikens at a target. I did pretty well – I managed to get about 4 out of 5 shurikens stuck somewhere on the giant wooden board , nowhere near the target. This does count as a success, in case you’re wondering, because not flinging it backwards had been my goal.
Now ninjas, mostly known through movies (which are of course highly inaccurate) for their fighting skills, are not warriors but are in fact mostly involved in espionage and strategic activities designed to undermine the enemy’s military might. As such their homes are filled with all sorts of secret passages and hideouts, which we were shown at the Ninja House by a Kuno, or female ninja. I loved the secret floorboard under which you can put important documents and valuables and cover them with sand so they don’t burn in case of a fire. Also epic was the secret lookout – two holes in a wall behind a revolving door in a room just big enough to stand in – not high enough though because the typical height of the Japanese back then was just over 5ft.
There’s a museum too where we saw all sorts of weapons, ninjas clothes, outfits for camouflage, and also those epic wooden shoes they used to walk on water. It was amazing how all their weapons had been fashioned to fit into the secret pockets tailored into their regular farmer outfits or into their farming implements – like a sword in the handle of a rake or pitchfork.
We left all the ninja-ness behind in time for lunch at Chitoseya Nishikiten for another Japanese feast, this time not just the bento but a hot pot filled with leeks, mushrooms, chicken and tofu. Since I like my meals hot, I left my bento to my brother and gobbled up the hot-pot with rice, also because it had a lot more flavour, and polished it off with not one but two mango custards (which I would love to be eating right now as I write this).
Post-lunch, we headed to Nagoya to visit the famous Nagoya Castle. Nagoya, unlike the rest of the cities we had visited, is very industrial and noticeably so with its tall buildings which look like they mean business. A very far cry from the traditional Japanese homes in Kyoto. The castle, sadly, is not the original castle of 1612 since it was burned down in WWII. Is there anything this war did not destroy – historical sites, families and generations to come…
The castle was rebuilt in the 1950s and the architecture is really something stunning- from the foundation up to the golden dolphins on the turrets said to ward off fires.
Built on a curved bed of rock (ogi kobai) with 5 storeys of green tiled roof, the castle is simply beautiful. Traditionally, such castles have 5 floors, but there are also one or two hidden floors which can be used as a hide-out or escape route. Since the castle was rebuilt recently, there is a really modern adjoining section through which you take an elevator up to the observation deck for some spectacular views of the city.
Each of the floors of the castle is now a museum gallery which unfortunately we did not have time to visit (it’s always good to leave some things to next time ^^). Instead, we took in the views from the top of the castle, made our way back to the bottom for some much-needed vending machine refreshment and shaved ice to ward off the heat which was finally beginning to feel like 36C. We left the castle, walking past a moat once filled with water, but now filled with vegetation and deer! Further construction, or reconstruction rather, is ongoing, to bring the castle and its surrounding quarters back to life.
From the splendour of the castle grounds we headed to the bustling Nagoya station where we were going to catch the Shinkansen to Tokyo. Afraid we’d miss the train, for which we had already booked tickets, we had rushed through the day, only to find ourselves at the platform well over half an hour in advance, which meant another long hot wait (air conditioned metro stations in Dubai have spoiled us I’m afraid). The wait turned out to be a good thing, as it gave us time to figure out where and how to embark and disembark (to avoid any embarrassing faux pas) and also gave us the opportunity to enjoy the sight of the sleek white Shinkansen arriving and departing from the station.
We caught the 244 to Tokyo at 17.42pm and while the Shinkansen reminded me of a wider, more comfy and of course much faster Dubai metro, there were a couple of other more noticeable differences – the first being the lack of noise both from the train and from the passengers. This silence, however was shattered by our noisy entrance and anyone who had hoped to catch some shut-eye would have been sorely disappointed, or perhaps amused by all the lively banter, photo sessions and exchange of snacks across all the rows. The second was the fact that there were food trays on every seat- food is allowed on the Shinkansen… Woohooo! In fact they even sell food on the train in a cute cart.
The ride was about an hour and a half (I say about, the Japanese however are much more precise when it comes to train times) and when we finally got off in Tokyo, we stepped into a mass of people at the Tokyo Station. The station is relatively easy to navigate since all signs are in English and we eventually found ourselves in the rotunda of the Tokyo Station, home of the Tokyo Station Hotel, an extremely expensive hotel which costs thousands of dirhams per night. This is not where we were staying though, so we went off into the night, leaving behind the glittering station building, for dinner.
Dinner was at Maharaja, a South Indian joint where we had a thali filled with some type of spicy chiken, fish curry, gulab jamun, rice and naan. I filled up on the naan, meduvada entree and gulab jamun and of course had tea before we set off to out hotel, the Akasaka Excel Hotel, Tokyu situated right opposite Bic Camera.
Exhausted, like really really exhausted, we collapsed in bed, forgoing the temptation of night time wandering on our first night in Tokyo.
Stay Tuned for Day 5 Part 1